REVIEW: Micro Eco-Farming
Small is beautiful…and boundless
Author explores the infinite possibilities of profitably and responsibly farming a small parcel of land.

Reviewed by Dan Sullivan

Details:

Micro Eco-Farming: Prospering from Backyard to Small Acreage in Partnership with the Earth

By Barbara Berst Adams

New World Publishing, 2004
ISBN: 0-9632814-3-7
174 pp. $16.95, paper

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July 14, 2005: When it comes to dreaming up and successfully operating a sustainable small farm enterprise, Barbara Berst Adams covers all the bases in her very readable book, Micro Eco-Farming: Prospering from Backyard to Small Acreage in Partnership with the Earth (New World Publishing, 2004).

The first few times I heard about this book, I assumed it was a how-to tome offering a new blueprint or technique in the vein of Mel Bartholomew’s Square-Foot Gardening or John Jeavons’ Biointensive gardening. While both methods—and many others—are referenced in this quick-paced compendium of small-scale farming, what is presented is not a specific technique but a collection of stories reflecting how a variety of farmers across the country have applied these different methods—and invented many of their own—to suit their specific conditions, crops, livestock, and communities. Interwoven with these real-life examples of micro-farming success are lessons in agronomy, animal husbandry, and marketing, all backdropped with a socio-spiritual curtain and glimpses of Utopia.

This book speaks immediately to the soul that’s already grounded—or maybe I should say floating—in a world of magical possibilities, where visualizing is realizing and all would be well if everyone could just feel the vibe. To the non-converted, the text might read—as one farmer put it while somewhat apologetically trying to explain the underlying principles of biodynamic agriculture—a little “airy faery.” It would be a shame, though, if the flower-child language scares anyone away, because this book is packed with solid information and practical advice.

While a few of the book’s anecdotes seem grandiose and a little far-fetched—a farmer who spared the life of a coyote who in turn protects his chickens and eats his rodents—for the most part the book is chock full of diverse and inspiring stories, anecdotes and techniques useful to anyone dreaming about earning extra income or making a living off of a small piece of land ranging in size from a modest backyard up to several acres.

Adams, a successful “micro eco-farmer” herself, walks the reader through concepts such as local economies and their environmental and social benefits; heirloom varieties, their attributes and the importance of the stories they tell; and niche marketing, including how to assess one’s customer base in relation to one’s own vision. The author continually returns to the concept of the “whole farm,” where each part integrates with the whole in a mutually beneficial relationship—from the animals, to the insects, to the soil, to the plants, to the farmer and his or her family, expanding outward to the local community and region. She offers an abundance of examples of how farmers have come up with one-of-a-kind products—from specialty wool to simply the experience of interacting with animals—or turned a problem into an advantage—such as the couple who sold homemade salsa “kits” like hotcakes right smack in the middle of a tomato glut.

Other themes Adams covers include remineralization (restoring the earth’s perfect balance of micro- and macro-nutrients), permacultural concepts of letting nature do the work for you, intercropping, successional and companion planting, growing vertically, choosing crops for regional adaptability, permanent raised beds, vermicomposting, paddock rotation and species diversity, animals as farmhands, foliar feeding and compost tea, and working with and creating microclimates.

Adams also addresses nontraditional methods of new—New Age, some might say—agriculture, such as restructured water and radionics/paramagnetics.

Throughout the book, Adams counsels the reader to go slow and to observe. That goes for the garden (noting what grows best where) and the marketplace (taking account of what niche might need filling with a particular specialty crop or value-added product).

For the successful micro eco-farm, Adams reminds us, diversity and adaptability are key. She demonstrates this with anecdotes as far ranging as the story of “Chile Man” Robert Farr—who bailed on a corporate job to relocate to a 10-acre Virginia farm where he picks an estimated 2 million peppers annually for his specialty sauces—to Jeremiath Gettle, the young founder of Baker Creek Seeds and publisher of The Heirloom Gardener, who travels the world in search of the best old-time, open-pollinated varieties he can find.

Adams encourages aspiring farmers to take a good look at the resources that already exist around them when planning an enterprise. The less overhead, she wisely counsels, the less pressure and the greater chance of success. She offers an abundance of ideas, lessons and advice from real farmers, including a back section on 25 unique enterprises not otherwise covered in the book. There is also an excellent “Resources & Networking” section of useful organizations.

It’s easy to rib Adams for being a little “out there,” but when she engages the reader in reflections of small farm as home space—her own two children were raised in such an environment—there can be no doubt about the sincerity of her convictions. She writes about what she observes and what she holds to be true.

“Family meals around the table were times of great enjoyment that reinforced family unity,” she writes. “As the outdoors came indoors to nourish us, we also felt a unity with the greater universe.”

And for these successful micro eco-farmers, she justly observes, that’s the most important part of the equation.

Dan Sullivan is senior editor for NewFarm.org.